Corcovado Tour Review: Spotting Wild pumas in Costa Rica

Corcovado National Park is hands down the best place to see wildlife in Costa Rica and to experience the tropical rainforest. As a perk, because the park has been protected since 1975 and because tourists’ visits to the park are tightly regulated, the animals in Corcovado are not as fearful of people as in most other places and will often approach you quite closely.

The only way to visit Corcovado National Park is on an organized tour. There are a few different options for Corcovado tours. Some are for trekking, while others focus more on wildlife watching.

What kind of Corcovado tour to choose?

There are a few things to decide when choosing a tour to Corcovado. Which ranger station do you wish to visit? How many days do you want to spend in the park? And where do you want to depart from.

There are five ranger stations in Corcovado, and Sirena station is the best among them. It has the most facilities and an excellent network of hiking trails. It is also the only ranger station where you can stay overnight. If it is wildlife spotting opportunities you are seeking, then Sirena is the station to visit.

In terms of departure, there are two jumping-off points for Sirena Ranger station: Puerto Jiménez and Drake Bay.

Corcovado Tours from Puerto Jiménez

Tours from Puerto Jiménez start with a 41-km drive to Carate and then a 19.5-km trek to Sirena Station. The trail is spectacular and mostly flat, but you’ll be trekking in tropical heat and humidity carrying a heavy backpack. It’s not as easy as it may sound.

But if you are reasonably fit and keen for a challenge, you can take a Two-Day Tour to Corcovado from Puerto Jiménez. As a perk, you’ll also visit La Leona Ranger Station near the start of the hike.

Corcovado Tours from Drake Bay

Drake Bay is a gorgeous sleepy seaside town. From Drake Bay, it takes a boat ride of just over an hour to get to Sirena Station. It’s a much easier way of getting to Sirena Station, even though the boat ride is not a tranquil experience (more on this below).

From Drake Bay, you can visit take a Day Tour to Sirena Station. Or, to maximize the wildlife spotting opportunities, take the Two-Day Tour from Drake Bay.

And if you are a wildlife nut like us, consider a Three-Days / Two Nights Tour from Drake Bay. We travelled with Surcos Tours, and I can’t recommend their tour highly enough. We had a superb guide and spotted a puma with two cubs on a hike!

Costa Rican pumas in Corcovado
Pumas in Corcovado

This is the tour we did and the one I describe below. In three days in Corcovado, we saw more wildlife than in the previous three weeks in Costa Rica, including a family of Costa Rican pumas! Read on to get a taste of what a visit to Corcovado wilderness entails. But first, some practical details.

How to get to Corcovado National Park

The two jumping-off points for Corcovado tours are Drake Bay and Puerto Jimenez. Both towns are off the beaten path and lovely places to visit.

Drake Bay is located on the Pacific side of the Osa Peninsula. In the dry season, you can drive to Drake Bay in 4WD. Otherwise, you’ll need to catch a boat from Sierpe. The boat ride is practically a mangrove tour in itself, and you are likely to spot some wildlife along the way. If you drive to Sierpe, you can park your car near the ‘wharf’.

Puerto Jimenez is located on the southeastern side of the Osa Peninsula, adjacent to the Golfo Dulce bay. To get to Puerto Jimenez, you can either take a long drive or take a one-hour flight from San Jose.

How much does it cost to visit Corcovado National Park?

Corcovado is not a cheap excursion. A day tour to Corcovado costs around $120-170. An overnight tour will set you back $450-500. For more than one night’s stay in the park, contact the tour agency for the latest prices. Surcos Tours is one of few agencies that still organize Three-Day tours to Corcovado.

When is the best time to visit Corcovado?

Corcovado is closed to visitors during October – the month of the highest rainfall in Costa Rica. The rainy season lasts from May to December. To avoid most of the rains, it is best to visit Corcovado during the dry season: December to April.

Do you need a guide for Corcovado?

Yes. Corcovado is wild and remote. And the only way to visit the park is with an organized tour and a certified guide.

Why is Corcovado National Park Famous?

National Geographic referred to Corcovado as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity’. Corcovado is epic in every sense of the way. It protects a third of the remote Osa Peninsula and encompasses the only remaining swath of old-growth wet forest on the Pacific coast of Central America. And these forests are home to an extraordinary abundance and variety of wildlife.

Three-Day Corcovado Tour

Our adventure started in the pre-dawn darkness as we walked from our guesthouse towards the main street of Drake Bay, where Bolivar, our guide from the locally-based Surcos Tours, was waiting for us at the tourist office.

Heading to Corcovado at sunrise
Leaving Drake Bay at sunrise

READ MORE: 25 Landmarks in Costa Rica to Add to Your Bucket List

We had already met Bolivar at the pre-departure briefing the night before, and the very necessity of such a briefing made me realize that a visit to Corcovado is not exactly a walk in the park. We discussed the condition of the trails and the available, albeit very limited, facilities at Sirena Ranger Station, calculated the necessary quantities of provisions we needed to take, and walked through the potential dangers that a visit to a remote wilderness entails.

At the briefing, I asked Bolivar what our chances were of spotting one of Corcovado’s wild cats (I saw reports of Ocelot sightings at Sirena). And Bolivar gently but firmly freed me from my delusions and concluded that the chances of spotting a wild cat were next to none.

He has never seen an ocelot in Corcovado, but in his 6 or 7 years of guiding in the park, he saw a puma on two occasions. I decided to take it as a good sign. I had a good feeling about Corcovado.

Boat ride to Corcovado from Drake Bay

When we arrived at the tourist office, we were greeted with delicious Costa Rican coffee. As we sipped the hot brew, the sky slowly began to lighten, and soon a pickup truck came rattling down the road to take us for a short drive to the boat landing.

What followed was one of the wildest adventures of our entire Costa Rica trip. Perhaps naively, I imagined a fairly tranquil experience of cruising the tropical waters for just over an hour, almost like an extended whale-watching trip, but that ride is anything but. You can read about our adventures of Getting to Corcovado from Drake Bay to get an idea of just how untranquil the ride in the massive swells of the Pacific Ocean is.

Corcovado Tour-corcovado beach
Corcovado beach

When we finally reached the shore of Corcovado, the three of us, and no doubt most of the other passengers, felt like battle survivors. Although in the idyllic setting of Corcovado’s wilderness, the boat ride soon became a distant memory.

Arriving in Corcovado National Park

We waded out onto the beach and found a log to sit on while we waited for the boat to be unloaded. As I watched hundreds of Hermit crabs scatter away from underneath our log, I took a moment to appreciate the fact that we were finally in Corcovado.

Toucan in Corcovado

Dubbed by National Geographic as ‘the most biologically intense place on earth in terms of biodiversity’, Corcovado is epic in every sense of the way. It protects a third of the remote Osa Peninsula and encompasses the only remaining swath of old-growth wet forest on the Pacific coast of Central America.

Most importantly (for me), it is home to five species of wild cats. Jaguars, pumas, ocelots, margays, and jaguarundi prowl these jungles at night. This place is probably, as close to a wildlife haven as the modern-day planet Earth has to offer.

As if to prove my point, within 20 minutes of landing on the beach, we were looking at the first endangered species of the trip. Two Baird’s tapirs were taking an afternoon nap in a shady puddle just off the trail that runs from the beach to Sirena Station.

We quietly made our way to the edge of their little swamp and sat there watching the odd-looking creatures sleep. It may not sound like much fun, but it felt incredible to be this close to some of Costa Rica’s wild animals, and to be so accepted into their world, especially considering that Baird’s tapirs are some of the most threatened species of wildlife in Costa Rica.

READ MORE: 50 Outstanding Safari Holidays Destinations Outside of Africa

Wildlife in Costa Rica - Baird's tapir
Baird’s tapir

Sirena Ranger Station

We entered Sirena station via the jungle airfield, where a cute little 4-seater plane sat parked in the freshly mowed grass.

The Station had an idyllic appearance of a tropical research station that brought to mind images from the Jurassic Park movies, which came as no surprise since some of these movies were filmed in Costa Rica.  But behind the romantic facade, the facilities at Sirena Station were beyond rustic.

Sirena ranger station in corcovado national park, costa rica
Sirena Ranger Station

The dorms and the showers were dilapidated and our dorm room had colonies of ants living inside. There is an option to camp at Sirena, which might be a more pleasant experience.

The only saving grace at Sirena station was the dining area and the large wrap-around veranda of the ranger’s office. I could easily imagine spending lazy evenings here, sprawled in comfortable chairs, watching animals emerge from the jungle.

But for now, we were content to have a quick cup of coffee and leave the station to explore one of the trails.

Corcovado Walking Trails

As soon as we stepped from the brightly-lit clearing of the station into the dim unknown of the jungle, we were engulfed in a different world that was absolutely teeming with life. A beautifully-patterned Tiger snake slithered across our path. Brilliantly colourful birds darted through the trees. Collared peccaries and White-nosed coatis scurried in the leaf litter completely unafraid.

Up in the trees, Howler monkeys and Squirrel monkeys raced across the canopy, dislodging ripe fruit that would land with a thud at our feet. It seemed like at every turn, there was something or someone amazing to encounter.

White-nosed coati in Corcovado
White-nosed coati

Bolivar spotted a Northern Tamandua – Costa Rica’s largest anteater, high up in the canopy. It seemed to have too ungainly a shape for a tree-dweller, yet it moved with unexpected grace. It poked its curious face through the branches to have a better look at us.

Not to be outdone by the high flyers, a little Eyelash viper curled up on a branch by the side of the trail, perfectly camouflaged against the moss-covered bark. Apparently, she can be found there any day, frozen motionless for hours, waiting for unwary prey to approach within her striking distance.

Eyelash pit viper in Corcovado
Eyelash Pit-viper

Sunrise in Corcovado

Our second day in Corcovado National Park started with a 4.30 am hike to the Sirena River in hopes of seeing tapirs taking a dip in the ocean. According to Bolivar, that’s what tapirs do here – wade into the ocean in the early hours of the morning.

The tapirs appeared to have had an earlier swim that day, but watching the sunrise over Costa Rica’s Jurassic-like jungle was quite awe-inspiring.

Sunrise in Corcovado national park
Sunrise in Corcovado

Hike to Puma Valley

After an enormous and delicious breakfast back at the station, we set off to Puma Valley. I was desperately hoping to see a wild cat in Costa Rica, and Corcovado National Park was my best chance. The aptly named Puma Valley was the place where Bolivar’s two puma sightings occurred.

The valley lies along the 16-km La Leona track, and to get to the start of the trail, we had to cross a tidal creek. As we were wading through about a meter of water, my friend Ruth pointed at a rather large crocodile floating just below the surface a few meters away.

Bolivar’s “Don’t worry, they don’t eat people” dismissal of the croc did not inspire too much confidence. I guess, after living in Australia for a few years, you develop a healthy scepticism towards what crocodiles do or do not eat.

Beach in Puma valley
Beach in Puma Valley

Costa Rican Puma in Corcovado

The trail to Puma Valley is a spectacular hike. It is flanked by dense tropical jungle on one side and deserted beaches and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The trail meanders in and out of the jungle onto the beaches and then back into the jungle again. If I were a wild cat, I would’ve been very happy to live here.

On one particularly picturesque beach, we were gobsmacked to see feline paw prints on the sand. Two separate sets: a mother and her young. The prints were quite fresh. I had goosebumps of excitement running down my spine as I realised that we were entering a puma’s domain.

As we stepped back into the jungle from the beach, Bolivar grabbed my arm, and none too gently pulled me down into a crouch, pointing into the thickets. I looked in the direction he was pointing and met an intent stare of a puma.

Costa Rica puma on a three-day corcovado tour
Puma in Corcovado

It was no further than 4 or 5 meters in front of us. Unable to speak or even breathe from excitement, the four of us froze where we were, too afraid that the cat would dash away.

She didn’t. She just stood there calmly watching us watching her. And after a while, another little face poked through the undergrowth – a cub!

puma cub on corcovado tour
One of the cubs

They kept watching us for a few minutes and then started walking away. Bolivar whispered for us to stay put. There was a swamp behind the pumas, and the only way for them to continue on their journey was to walk around it right across our field of view.

He was right. And as the cats emerged from the undergrowth, we noticed the second cub. The trio slowly walked around the swamp and disappeared into the thick undergrowth, leaving us speechless for a few minutes.

Costa Rican pumas seen on a tour in Corcovado
Pumas in Corcovado

I have chased enough cats in the wild to appreciate just how rare a sighting this was. When we returned to Sirena and Bolivar shared the news with the station rangers, they wouldn’t believe him until he presented photographic evidence.

Later in the afternoon, a group of three antipoaching patrol rangers walked into Sirena, rifles slung over their shoulders. These men spend three weeks in the field, in parts of the park that can only be accessed on foot. They sleep under the stars and see more wildlife than anyone else in Corcovado.

Bolivar had to present our photographs to these rangers as well in order for them to believe him. I asked him to find out what cat species these rangers encounter during their patrols in the jungle, and he came back with two reports of Ocelot sightings (over a few years) and of a couple of puma sightings. Cats seem to be as elusive in Corcovado as they are in most other places where they occur.

Costa Rican Puma Facts

Where can you see a Puma in Costa Rica?

In Costa Rica, pumas are found in Corcovado National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, Santa Rosa National Park, and Tenorio & Miravalles Volcano National Park

How do they hunt?

Like most felids, pumas are solitary ambush hunters. Masters of stealth and camouflage, pumas stalk their prey until they are within striking distance. The final charge is an explosion of speed and power and smaller animals are killed by a bite on the back of the neck designed to server the neck. Larger animals are killed by a suffocating bite to the throat.

What do they eat?

Pumas are highly adaptable cats. In the Costa Rican jungle, pumas catch capybaras, pacas, agoutis, coatis, olingos, opossums, raccoons and even porcupines. They are also no strangers to taking domestic stock if the animals are left unattended.

Read more: How to Plan a Patagonia Puma Quest in Torres Del Paine, Chile.

Discovering more Corcovado wildlife

The following day we returned to Puma Valley but didn’t see the cats, of course. But we did find some Baird’s tapirs snoozing in a shady puddle, and at one point, a huge group of White-nosed coatis surrounded us on the trail. They completely ignored us as they dug around in the leaf litter, looking for buried fungi virtually next to our feet.

Before we left the valley, we picked up another couple of mammals: a Red Brocket deer and a Red-tailed squirrel, as well as a very impressive Pale-billed woodpecker. 

Apart from the cats, another animal I wanted to see was a Tent-making bat. This curious bat builds its own home by biting the central vein of a large banana leaf until it folds in half, forming a V-shaped shelter that protects the bat from the sun and the rain. Bolivar found one near the creek, roosting underneath a large Heliconia leaf.

Back at the field centre, a troop of Spider monkeys and Squirrel monkeys spent the afternoon squabbling in the low branches, birds of prey actively hunted large insects and Collared peccaries browsed on the grassy lawns. It was like living inside the Costa Rican edition of the Jungle Book.

Fer de Lance

The one thing we kept missing in Costa Rica was Central America’s most infamous venomous snake – Fer de Lance. This snake is responsible for most snakebite-related deaths in the region. So when the chance to see one presented itself, we jumped to it.

It was the morning of our departure, and we were lazing around at the station, drinking some much-missed coffee. Suddenly, Bolivar came up brimming with excitement and a sense of urgency. One of the other guides told him that his group just spotted a Fer de Lance about a kilometre up one of the trails. And he offered to take us to the spot.

In a flurry of excitement, our coffee was completely forgotten, and we took off at a trot after the guide. The trail was so muddy that the flip-flops we happened to be wearing were more of a hindrance than anything else, so we ended up carrying them in our hands instead.

This is what wildlife-watching holidays are all about for me – running barefoot along a muddy jungle trail to see a venomous snake!

Fer de lance in Corcovado
Exceptionally well-camouflaged Fer de lance

The viper, one of the most dangerous animals in Costa Rica, was curled up on the jungle floor, barely distinguishable from the leaf litter. It would take real skill to spot it before stepping on it.

No wonder the guide volunteered to take us rather than explain to us where the snake was. He obviously didn’t want to contribute to the count of unaccompanied foreign tourists that perished at Corcovado.

To finish our adventure, we were treated to a monsoonal downpour on the boat ride back to Drake Bay. Over an hour under torrential rain, all the while thinking that we had our rain jackets packed too deep in our bags, which were stashed out of reach in the stern section of the boat.

caught in the rain on a boat in Costa Rica
Remember to keep a rain jacket handy at all times!

Verdict on Three-Day Corcovado Tour

So what’s the verdict on the Three-Day Corcovado tour? It was an exceptional experience. The best adventure of our Costa Rica trip.

Bolivar was a fantastic guide, and without his help, we would not have spotted half of the animals we saw. And while the wildlife is very approachable, you could even say tame, in Corcovado, we never approached the animals too closely. Unless they came to us themselves. We also made sure to leave no traces of our visit to the park’s trails and took all our rubbish back with us.

Here is our species list for Corcovado National Park.

You may not have as much time as we did in Corcovado. But I would highly recommend staying in the park overnight. A two-day tour is a good compromise. You can still see a lot of wildlife even on a Day-Tour to Sirena, but to truly appreciate Corcovado, aim to spend at least one night in the park.

More Nature Adventures in Costa Rica

24 thoughts on “Corcovado Tour Review: Spotting Wild pumas in Costa Rica”

  1. Although I have been to Costa Rica many times it has always been to the Pacific coast.

    I’ll be sure to go to Corcovado next time!

      • We took a day trip from Drake to Corcovado last month and have to agree even on a day trip it was fantastic, we didn’t see a puma or tamandua but did get a great view a very rare Tayra & watched a Tapir strolling along the beach for about 500 metres before she decided to get loved up with a close by male.

      • Awww you did see a tapir on the beach, how fantastic! We’ve tried so hard but never managed to catch them in the act :). Congratulations on sotting a tayra! We are yet to see these cheeky campers too. That sounds like a very productive day trip

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